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Advocates for a Tougher ‘Gainful Employment’ Rule Step Into the Fray

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Organizers from Young Invincibles who visited for-profit colleges on Tuesday saw firsthand some of the EDMC posters opposing the gainful-employment regulation hanging at an Art Institute campus in Washington. (Young Invincibles)

Student groups, veterans organizations, and others who want the federal government to put more teeth into its newest proposed “gainful employment” regulation are launching a visible lobbying and public-relations effort over the measure this week. There’s a Twitter campaign set for Wednesday—complete with its own hashtag, #studentsdemand—and a Capitol Hill news conference on Thursday featuring students at for-profit colleges and several U.S. senators.

“We’re going to be raising the voices of students this week,” said Rory O’Sullivan, deputy director of Young Invincibles, the nonprofit group that is spearheading the effort.

Organizers from Young Invincibles spent Tuesday visiting with dozens of students at four for-profit colleges in the Washington, D.C., area. “There’s a lot of frustration out there” among students who want more protection from high-cost programs that don’t prepare graduates for jobs in their field, said Mr. O’Sullivan. The U.S. Department of Education’s draft rule, he said, “is not strong enough to do that.”

The proposed rule would cut off student aid to career-focused programs at for-profit and nonprofit colleges if the program’s student-loan default rate reached 30 percent or if half of its graduates failed two student-loan debt standards. (The complicated particulars of the rule are explained in this chart.)

With just two weeks to go before the May 27 deadline for the public to submit comments to the department about the rule, Young Invincibles wants to be sure its concerns and those of its allies aren’t drowned out by the messages of opposition to the rule from the for-profit-college industry. “The for-profit colleges, they’re very good at this,” Mr. O’Sullivan said.

The industry’s campaign against the rule has been less vituperative than its lobbying in 2010, but spirited nonetheless. Several of the biggest companies, including the University of Phoenix, Corinthian Colleges Inc., and the Education Management Corporation, have been holding meetings with students and employees to encourage them to weigh in against the rule.

And to facilitate that, some, including Corinthian and EDMC, as Education Management is known, created websites to automate the comment submissions.

A Corinthian spokesman said more than 4,000 comments had been generated through its site, which contends that the proposed rule “denies as many as two million future students the ability to attend the program of their choice.”

A spokesman for EDMC said “several thousand” students, faculty members, and staff members had filed comments through its site. As first reported by the blogger and for-profit-college critic David Halperin in The Huffington Post, the Fort Lauderdale campus of EDMC’s Art Institutes recruited some of those commenters through a posting on FaceBook that offered free pizza to students who would stop by the library during the week of April 21 and sign on, via its SaveStudentChoice.com website.

EDMC has also highlighted the issues in posters. Cristina Calvillo-Rivera, a Young Invincibles state-outreach coordinator who visited students at an Art Institutes campus in Washington on Tuesday, said she saw four such “Tell Your Story” posters per floor during her visit. There and on the other campuses the organizers visited (a campus of DeVry University, one of ECPI, and a center that trains nurses assistants called VMT Education Center), she said the sentiment was similar.

“There is a lot of concern about how they were going to pay off their loans,” especially among those closer to completing, she said. The organizers also found students who were satisfied with their programs.

Young Invincibles, along with other groups that plan to take to Twitter on Wednesday to press for a tougher rule, are seeking four changes. They want changes in the rule to:

  • Provide financial relief for students in programs that lose eligibility.
  • Limit enrollment in poorly performing programs until they improve.
  • Protect low-cost programs where most graduates don’t borrow (most of which are at community colleges).
  • Close other “loopholes” (for example, programs can satisfy the rule even if most of their graduates drop out).

“These four changes are essential to adequately protect both students and taxpayers,” said the Education Trust, another organization that has mounted its own online petition drive enlisting advocates for a tougher rule. It, too, will be part of the PR campaign this week, with plans to tweet out four illustrated infographics that highlight changes the groups are seeking in the rule. “We can’t allow more students to come aboard a sinking ship,” says one of the graphics, about limiting enrollment.

Several of the groups also expect to take part in a news conference on Thursday, with four Democratic senators: Richard Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Brian Schatz of Hawaii. They, along with a few students, will call for a tougher rule.

But that will hardly be the last word. As it did the last time a gainful-employment rule was proposed, the for-profit-college industry’s main trade group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, is also gearing up to present an economic argument against the measure, based on an analysis by Charles River Associates and its consultant, Jonathan Guryan. Before the May 27 deadline, Mr. Guryan, who is an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, and the association will also propose some alternative approaches to the rule.

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